Hardcover: 344 pages
‘Once, within this enclave, there were two ponds, oblong, side by side. Behind them was a lowland spanning a few acres.” The opening chapter of Jhumpa Lahiri’s hypnotic new novel has some of the elliptical concision of a parable or a folk tale – aptly enough, as these are both genres that, along with political-historical fiction and sensation melodrama, flit around the book’s plot without ever defining it. Indeed, it is one of The Lowland’s many achievements that it can glance at other and older stories and styles, even as it allows a reader to sense the urgency of the historical moment across several decades of Indian and American life.
A finely pitched meditation on various modes of distance and affinity, the novel achieves both a distillation of the concerns of earlier works such as Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, and a significant stylistic advance on them.
Central to The Lowland is the relationship between Subhash and Udayan, two brothers close enough in age and circumstance to feel like twins – a fact that has multiple resonances as the subsequent narrative unfolds.
Although the brothers are children of the Partition era, it is typical of Lahiri’s avoidance of the obvious that the events of the late Forties feature as a distant but ominous political rumbling in the background of the Sixties Calcutta in which the boys come to maturity. While Subhash’s scientific interests and social ambitions lead him to study in the United States, Udayan becomes increasingly embroiled in the Marxist Naxalite uprisings, unable to accept that mind alone can change the world without direct action.
Another novelist might have burdened these almost-twins with the force of schematic contrast, but Lahiri is as interested in the ways in which they complement each other, so that it feels awkwardly natural rather than corny for Udayan to come out with a line like: “You’re the other half of me, Subhash.”
In these early sections of the novel, Lahiri’s prose is thick with important historical dates, which might lead a reader to expect a certain, perhaps more familiar, overlapping between the personal and historical; but with Udayan’s sudden, brutal death in action, The Lowland becomes another kind of novel altogether.
Fearing the long future of joyless widowhood that now stretches before Udayan’s pregnant wife, Gauri (“He thought of her becoming a mother, only to lose control of the child”), he takes the drastic step of substituting himself for his dead brother, marrying Gauri and bringing up the child, Bela, as his own.
The rest of the novel works as a long and often painful examination of this one act of impetuousness, or generosity, or selfishness (Lahiri never lets us settle), and its consequences. America liberates Gauri into intellectual confidence and academic fame, yet it renders her incapable of parental feeling towards her daughter; meanwhile, Subhash grows as close as any biological father to Bela, even while the threat of the inevitable revelation hangs heavy over many years.
Belonging and alienation, place and displacement: these have long been Lahiri’s abiding fictional concerns, but in The Lowland, they are more alive than before, in the very shapes of her sentences. For example, as befits a writer so interested in relatedness, there is a lot at stake in her prepositions, as she can implicate whole complexes of social relations through little details of physical and psychological “location” (“A Bengali medium school for boys from ordinary families, beyond the tram depot, past the Christian cemetery”). And repeatedly, the novel’s prose rests and meditates on the word “between” – a word which both joins and divides, as Lahiri’s quietly suggestive style shares out its perspectives and sympathies, in a searching exploration of likeness and unlikeness.
As Gauri and Subhash head into old age, the questions of whether they did the right thing, whether there is always (or ever) just one right thing to do, remain unresolved, appropriately enough for such an excellent example of the art of fiction – an art, which, like the plot of The Lowland,invites us to imagine what it might be like to be close to people we don’t really know.